Major implications from our analysis of 20 yrs of global warming perceptions
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Here are the major implications from our study analyzing twenty years of American public opinion data on global warming:
1. Global warming skeptics continue to make an impact on public opinion.
As we describe in the article, although a strong majority of Americans say that they believe that global warming is real, that temperatures are rising, and that the release of carbon dioxide is a cause, the public remains relatively uncertain about whether the majority of scientists agree on the matter. As long as the public remains confused about where the experts stand, public support for policy action is likely to be weak and volatile.
Moreover, the article does not include break downs across polls by partisanship, but as Gallup and Pew polls from 2007 show, there still remains a "two Americas" of climate change perceptions. Over the past year, Democrats have become almost universally concerned and worried whereas a majority of Republicans remain skeptical of the science and the urgency of the issue.
It's a result of two different sets of political leaders offering contrasting interpretations that are then relayed via an ever more ideologically fragmented media system.
2. As long as global warming is a relatively low priority for the public, it will be a relatively low priority for policymakers and the news media.
In the aggregate, Americans might say that they are concerned about global warming, but compared to many other policy problems, the issue still remains among the bottom tier of priorities. Even in comparison to other environmental issues, global warming sits at the lower end of worries. As long as global warming continues to lag as a relative concern for Americans, few policymakers will feel an incentive to spend political capital in support of meaningful policy action. Moreover, the issue itself will remain a second tier news agenda item.
3. Global warming remains very much a public communication problem.
Scientists, environmental groups, and some Democratic leaders have been very good at mobilizing a certain baseline level of urgency, but if the rest of the public is going to be activated, new media platforms, opinion leaders, and frames will have to be employed. For more, see the recent articles published at Science and at the Washington Post
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